What I Tell Myself When I Don’t Feel Like Practicing

nathan-crothersThere’s tons of advice written for how to ‘make the most’ of your practice sessions, but how about getting motivated to pull out your instrument in the first place?
Here I share 25+ years of what has worked for me a flautist (and what hasn’t)


Back in the 1990’s when I was an teenager in New Mexico, my high school band teacher (an imposing figure of a man with a patchy goatee) had a favourite saying:

For every hour you’re not practicing SOMEONE. ELSE. IS!

He believed in this philosophy so much that he would shout this through a red megaphone at band rehearsals on a daily basis (not kidding). This tactic was very effective because his warning stuck in my head for years afterwards. Maybe it wasn’t his intention, but I interpreted it in my head like this:

If I don’t practice Mara’s going to win the principal chair in the orchestra and not me!

If I don’t practice my flute teacher won’t think I am as talented or hard-working as Anita!

If I don’t practice everyone will notice that I can’t hit my high D’s in the Prokofiev like Samuel can!

If I don’t practice I won’t get into the top-notch conservatoire that will make my career like Paolo did last year.

And so forth.

In other words, practice was about ‘keeping up with the Jones’, (albeit in a flute sense) and staying ‘on top’ of the other flute competition out there. But really? It was about what other musicians were doing (and what I was not).

In music school this ethos became a key motivation for me to get my boo-tay in the practice room when I decided to be a ‘serious, professional flautist’. A clawing desperation to be ‘good enough’ combined with a fear of failing to ‘make it’ as a musician (and shock and horror someone else succeeding instead of me!) was my daily practice tonic.

You can probably guess that a practice session used to have about the equivalent appeal to me as tax forms, giving blood, and having to say no to adopt an orphaned baby squirrel: though necessary, often painful and internally I resented much of it.

letgoFast-forward a decade.

After my music school days, I had come to the point where I found little joy in my playing and the motivation to do anything musical had vanished. I was bored, burnt out and fed-up with it all. Clearly I needed a new way to approach practicing because one day I quit playing full stop.
Insert the story of my own flute career burnout and the road to my ‘Artistic Recovery’

pleasedonotfeedthefearsFast-forward another 5 years.

I certainly don’t have it all figured out. Actually– I don’t think anyone ever does. But I do know this: Fear-based choices of any kind have a certain smelly unpleasant flavour to them. The wise Martha Beck describes a fearful action as: ‘Always feeling bad/ Motivates grasping/ Seizes control/ Insists on certainty/ Needs everything’. All of these feelings were present in my past practice sessions. Fearful approaches to practicing had overstayed its welcome in my musical life and had to go, pronto (buh-bye band director voice and that blinkin’ red megaphone…).

dont-even-worry-madebyhooplaI have come up with a sure-fire way I get myself to the practice room. I use this little mantra, taken straight out of Julia Cameron’s Artist’s Way book:

“Ok creative force, you take care of the quality, I’ll take care of the quantity.”

Here’s the brilliance to this way of viewing practice: I have to literally show up regardless

…if I think my playing will sound crappy and it will sound like a musical disaster (yeah, sometimes it  is)

… if I only have 12 mins to spare or a whole afternoon to devote to my playing

…if I am not in an ‘artsy, creative musical mood’ (like say on a chilly, rainy Monday morning in January)

…if there are a hundred other things I’d rather be doing instead (Instagram! Pay overdue water bill! Trim my toenail cuticles!!).

sometimesyoujusthavetoletgoApproaching my playing by simply showing up to do the work without any expectation that is has to be (fill in the blank) puts my trust that somehow I will achieve what is needed at the moment, that day, that minute.

And better yet? It has nothing to do with what anyone else is doing. This approach couldn’t be more simple (or easy on the soul) and is the opposite of anything fear-based.

You know when you’re there because as Martha Beck describes, non-fearful actions are ones that ‘Motivates liberation/ Relaxes control/ Accepts uncertainty/ Needs nothing’.

Try this approach. You might be divinely hooked.

How about you? What words do you use?


Want more on this topic? You might also like these related writings:

The Letter I’d Write to my Teenage-Self About Being a Musician, 20 Years Later

Tired of the usual musical hum-drum? (Of course you are!) Here are 52 flute activities guaranteed to shake up your musical life this year

The one simple sentence that’s probably getting in the way of your flute playing (+ no, practicing has nothing to do with it)


With Special thanks to Mystic Mama for the use of the gorgeous pics above.


Enjoy this writing?
Get my monthly newsletter FREE and get more flute articles just like this one delivered straight to your inbox.

powered by TinyLetter


How to Use Your Alter Ego for Performance (+ what we can learn from Beyoncé)
Learn How to Play Tango Flute in London with Dr. Jessica Quiñones
Share the joy...Tweet about this on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on LinkedInPin on PinterestShare on Google+Email this to someonePrint this page

, , , , , , , , , ,

2 Responses to What I Tell Myself When I Don’t Feel Like Practicing

  1. sanghaketu October 16, 2015 at 6:42 am #

    Thanks for offering inspiration to those like me who have dried up. x

    • Dr. Jessica Quiñones October 19, 2015 at 10:41 am #

      Hi Sanghaketu, thanks for stopping by the blog. If this resonates with just one person I know that I have done my job– delighted you found it useful. Dried up? Surely not. Think about the gardener’s practice of shedding and cutting back old foliage on a regular basis so new revitalized regrowth can appear. That might be a useful adage for your newly blossoming musicality– With love, Jessica

Leave a Reply